If you're considering pulling your horse's shoes and switching to hoof boots, know that there are several critical steps to take as you make the transition.
Before you invest in expensive hoof boots that may or may not be right for your horse, check out our tips, do your homework, and talk to your farrier and veterinarian. Then decide which, if any, boot is best for your horse.
Here, we'll give you tips on boot fit and how to get started. Plus, we'll provide live links to hoof-boot manufacturers and to further reading.
(For more information, see "Your Guide to Hoof Boots," The Trail Rider, July/August '12)
Size & Shape
If you've evaluated your horse with the help of your veterinarian and farrier, and have decided your horse is a good candidate for hoof boots, the next step is to select the right boot size and shape.
You may be so accustomed to your own horse that you aren't aware of how varied hoof shape can be.
Thoroughbred-type feet tend to be more round, while those of gaited breeds may be more oval. Trying to jam an oval hoof into a round boot sounds like an old cliché, and it's just as true: Find a boot shaped like your horse's foot.
Most hoof-boot makers will advise you to make tracings of your horse's feet soon after trimming. Custom-made boots will require this step. By tracing your horse's foot, you'll clearly see whether it's wider than it is long.
Keep in mind that your tracings will capture your horse's feet as they were shaped on that day. If you've recently removed your horse's shoes, his foot shape may change quite a bit in the months to come.
Plan to evaluate hoof-boot fit on a regular basis, or opt for boots with plenty of adjustment features.
Custom-made boots are sometimes required for hard-to-fit sizes. For instance, if you have a half-draft trail horse, you may be limited in your choices to find a boot big enough for him.
You might also have a hard time finding variety in boots for a small pack animal, such as a burro or Sicilian donkey. But with the number of boots on the market today, there's a boot for every equid!
"Fit" and "size" aren't interchangeable terms when it comes to hoof boots. Determine the correct size for your horse in consultation with the manufacturer (or his/her representative) or a knowledgeable and patient tack-shop salesperson.
Spend time researching models, and have your hoof tracings on hand as you examine each one.
Find out in advance under what conditions the boots may be returned for a refund if they don't fit your horse. Custom boots are usually not returnable. Ask about warranties for materials.
Ideally, you should load your barefoot horse onto a trailer and drive to the tack shop or boot fitter, unless he or she can come to you. If the shop permits, and if your trailer and horse are spotlessly clean, you may be allowed to try a boot on your horse to see how it fits.
Don't be surprised if a boot fits your horse's front feet, but not his hind ones. Hind feet are generally more oval and may be a different size.
Likewise, if your horse has mismatched front hoof angles — a common condition — he may need two different boot
sizes. This can be problematic if the boots are only sold in pairs, but correct fit is imperative. Some horses wear boots from different manufacturers.
High-tech customized boots, such as the Swiss Horse Boot, are sold only after a professional fitting by authorized farriers or hoof trimmers who specialize in those boots. Most boots offer some adjustments for odd-shaped hoof walls, but the shape of the platform under the foot still must match your horse's hoof shape. Even with an ample hook-and-loop adjustment system in Cavallos, Deltas, and Old Mac's, a good fit must start with selecting the correct size.
Every few months, stand back and evaluate how your horse's hoof boots fit. Ask your farrier to check the boots and point out any developing problems.
Note that you may or may not be able to use the same pair of boots for multiple horses. Over time, some boots seem to have more "memory" than others, and take on altered shapes similar to the hooves they cover. Don't try to make an old boot fit a new horse; the likelihood of a good fit will decrease.
Likewise, don't share boots with friends and acquaintances, except perhaps in a dire emergency. The likelihood of getting the boots back in their original condition is slim.
Plus, boots are easily lost or stolen, and any mishaps that the borrower experiences while riding might be blamed on the borrowed boots.
You've bought the boots, now what? Here are some startup tips.
- Save the packaging. Save all the packaging and product literature that comes with your boots, especially the receipt. Read any and all advice from the manufacturer. Make a note of the manufacturer's website and telephone numbers.
- Check photos. Check photos of the boots on horses as shown by the manufacturers. Note how the boots fit in the heels and around the pastern.
- Stay up-to-date on trimming. Make sure that your horse isn't overdue for trimming, as overgrown hooves may affect the fit.
- Take extra time. Schedule a quiet hour with your horse to fit the boots for the first time. Tie him safely, or have a helper hold your horse while you apply the boots.
- Take a photo. Photograph the boots on your horse's feet, then remove the boots. Decide whether you're satisfied with the size and fit. If you're not, call the tack shop or manufacturer immediately to arrange an exchange.
- Walk, trot, and turn your horse. Apply the boots, and walk your horse. Ask him to turn, and note whether the boots twist on his feet. Judge how comfortable he appears. Make a mental note of any changes in stance, or whether the boots brush, particularly in the hind feet. Trot your horse on the lead line, and listen for an even footfall. Does he hesitate to transition into and out of the trot? Adjust the boots and try again.
- Saddle up. Head out on a short trail ride over level ground. Again, listen for any changes in the normal sounds of your horse's gaits. Ask a knowledgeable horseperson to observe your horse under saddle to see whether anything appears awkward or out of sync.
- Mark right and left. When you're happy with the boots, note which one is marked right and which one is marked left (if applicable). Small markings are easy to read on a new pair of boots, but will be obscured with wear. Place a dot of paint or nail polish in two different colors on the inside collar of each boot to help you put them on the right feet.
- ID the boots. Write your name, the size of the boot, and your horse's name on the inside of each boot with a waterproof marker for identification purposes.
- Practice. Practice applying and removing the boots several times, until your horse is accustomed to the procedure and you can judge what normal adjustment will entail. You need to be able to remove the boots quickly in case of injury.
- Relax. Hoof boots are designed to make your life easier and your horse's day on the trail less worrisome. Remember that you don't have to buy the most expensive, high-tech boots when you are first starting out. Start on the low-end of the scale with a less expensive boot and work your way up as you learn more about your horse and how he likes to wear his boots.
Fran Jurga is editor and publisher of the Gloucester, Massachusetts-based Hoofcare & Lameness: The Journal of Equine Foot Science, and its informational website, www.hoofcare.com.